Director Joe Penna achieves a rare thing in his new film Arctic. By minimizing the drama in his survival tale, he imbues it with a sense of reality that is uncommon in the genre. There is no romance, no epic showdown, no bickering among survivors or any other attempt to embellish this tale of one man trying to save himself and a wounded woman from the freezing environment. This is a good thing.
Mads Mikkelsen plays the man. We get no backstory for him. When the film opens up, he has already been stranded for some time. He has a routine that he adheres to. He checks his clever fishing setup, he cleans up his S.O.S. signal in the snow, and he sends out a radio signal. Then he sleeps. This routine is interrupted when a helicopter gets close enough for him to signal. In the attempt to land, the helicopter crashes. The pilot dies and a young woman is seriously injured. They have a language barrier that makes communication minimal. As time ticks away, the man must decide to try and take them to a far off shelter.
Penna decides to keep the film largely dialogue-free. This choice is realistic for the situation but it also allows the audience to experience how the man attempts to survive without everything being explained. It is the film's wisest quality as it never panders to the audience, trusting them to think and figure out things on their own. I think several filmmakers would find the need to include an internal monologue or two but Penna trusts Mikkelsen to convey everything he needs to.
Mikkelsen shines as a result of being able to express everything physically. Rarely has he portrayed such a vulnerable person. It is a captivating performance even when the film loses its way for a while. The second half of the film struggles to build towards a climax. Instead, it sustains a great deal of tension that is only released in the final frames of the film. Arctic is routinely suspenseful even when it doesn't feel like it is going anywhere.
The film's cinematography is often stunning, shifting from wide-screen vistas to claustrophobic interiors. The score is overbearing, telling us too often how to feel in a particular moment. It works against the otherwise minimalist aesthetic that Arctic employs.
Arctic ultimately follows a familiar trajectory but the way it is told, with little dialogue or excess drama, sets it apart from other tales of survival. Mads Mikkelsen shines and gives the film an emotional center that keeps you highly invested even when the film feels like it is treading water instead of moving forward.